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Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid holds a press conference in Kabul on Tuesday. Photo: Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

With the Afghan government and military no longer able to provide cover, President Biden risks the ugliest of exits from Kabul if he blows past his promise to leave Aug. 31.

Why it matters: The Taliban now controls the area around Kabul's airport. As the U.S. removes its final 5,800 troops — and shrinks the security perimeter they've been providing — the surest way to ensure the last soldiers and diplomats get out safely is through the grace of a grisly enemy.

The big picture: A Taliban spokesman on Tuesday repeated the group's stance that it will not recognize any extension past Aug. 31. That cold reality explains why Biden is sticking to his timetable, despite pleas from allies like the United Kingdom, combat veterans and outside groups trying to evacuate Afghans.

  • "Who wants to be the last man there?" a U.S. veteran nearly killed in Afghanistan told Axios.
  • Biden said Tuesday the U.S. is on pace to exit by his deadline, but that will depend to the end on the Taliban's continued cooperation, including access to the airport and no disruptions to the U.S. operations.
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted twice on Tuesday about his calls to the NATO secretary general and Turkish foreign minister. Both NATO and Turkish forces have the potential to provide cover for departing U.S. forces.

The U.S. had about 2,500 troops in Kabul as of last month, with long- term plans to maintain a force of 650 Marines to protect the U.S. embassy.

  • When the government collapsed on Aug. 15, the Taliban encircled the lifeline out — Hamid Karzai International Airport.
  • President Biden sent in nearly 6,000 troops, and they've established a buffer and allowed its lone runway to reopen for evacuation flights.
  • Nonetheless, Taliban fighters operate their own checkpoints within eyesight of the Americans, and they could shut down the airport by firing mortars into the runway or tarmacs, or by shooting at departing airplanes.

Biden has committed to leaving by Aug. 31, but White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Tuesday: "The president has asked the Pentagon and the State Department for contingency plans to adjust the timeline should that become necessary."

  • CIA Director William Burns met with Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul on Monday, and Defense Department spokesperson John Kirby said on Tuesday that consultations continue.
  • In his speech late Tuesday, the president noted the Taliban itself could be attacked by ISIS-K, a bitter enemy of both parties.
  • "Every day we're on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport," Biden said.

What's next: Kirby acknowledged the risks as U.S. forces move toward the last outbound airplanes.

  • Not only soldiers but State Department employees who've been processing the evacuees would be on those final flights. There would be no U.S. troops left in Afghanistan to safeguard them when the last plane departed.
  • "It is all done in a very careful, methodical way, so that you can preserve as much capability to the very end that you need," Kirby said. The U.S. would try "to get our materiel out with our people," he added, referring to its last weaponry.
  • If it can't fit, it will be destroyed, potentially by Air Force fighters and bombers that can shoot from a safe distance.

Go deeper

Updated Nov 12, 2021 - Politics & Policy

White House says Biden and Xi will hold virtual summit on Nov. 15

Then-Vice Premier Xi and then-Vice President Biden at the White House in 2012. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Biden will hold a virtual summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday, marking the most public direct engagement between the two leaders since Biden took office, the White House announced Friday.

Why it matters: The Biden administration views the rise of China as the top geopolitical challenge that the U.S. will face in the 21st century, but has stressed the need for cooperation with the world's second-largest economy.

Pelosi announces bid for re-election ahead of 2022 midterms

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced her bid for re-election Tuesday, amid a deluge of other safe-seat Democrats announcing their retirements.

Why it matters: Pelosi’s announcement follows months of speculation — despite her denials — that she was preparing to leave Congress.

Scoop: Qatar emir to visit White House on Monday

The emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, leaves the White House after meeting President Trump in 2019. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

The emir of Qatar will meet with President Biden at the White House on Monday to discuss Afghanistan as well as contingency plans to provide natural gas to Europe in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Europe's reliance on Russia for 40% of its natural gas is undermining Biden's attempts to coordinate "massive" sanctions to be imposed from both sides of the Atlantic if Russia invades. The White House wants Qatar to help ensure European countries can enforce tough sanctions without risking an energy crisis.